Well Happy Flying Home
WWII vet raises flag, memories and goosebumps at ballpark ceremony.
Thousands of baseball fans gathered inside the ballpark in Minneapolis this summer to take in an afternoon game.
Beforehand, the crowd was introduced to Lt. Cmdr. Bill Connell. They heard a little bit about his story and watched him raise the U.S. flag before the National Anthem. They applauded, placed their hands over their hearts and sang along to the Star-Spangled Banner.
Then, the fans went about watching a ballgame in America. Wearing his World War II veteran cap and his decades-old leather flight jacket, so did the 94-year-old naval aviator.
They heard a small piece of William’s story. But the entire epic episode is why monuments are built, books are written and movies are filmed.
Just before dawn on July 4, 1944, Bill, a 19-year-old pilot, and his partner took off on his first bombing mission. His assignment was to take out a radio station on the small island Chichijima several hundred miles south of Japan.
Bill’s first bombing mission was about to end. It would be his last.
Land-based, anti-aircraft fire ripped the tail of his plane away. He ejected himself from the aircraft and plummeted into the Pacific. Bill never knew for sure what happened to his partner. But he imagines.
Bill floated in those waters for almost an hour until Japanese rescue boats showed up and took him prisoner. Hell started about then. He was tied to a palm tree, hanging from his arms from sundown to sun up. Then a second tree, then a third.
“They worked me over pretty good,” Bill says.
Bill spent 15 months total as a prisoner of war, including during the bombing of Tokyo. “I spent months being questioned,” Bill says. “They were sure I knew something.”
The Marines liberated that POW camp as the war was coming to a close, and Bill was finally sent home, “hop-skipping in a four-engine plane across the Pacific for weeks,” he says. The Navy allowed him a telegram home, but limited him to four words. His words were beautiful, poignant and so very efficient: “Well Happy Flying Home.”
He finally landed in Oakland, Calif. Then it was off to his hometown of Seattle where he spent the better part of a year in the hospital recovering from his injuries.
Despite struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bill stayed true to the Navy after the war. He continued as a pilot and was stationed in Japan, Guam and finally Minneapolis. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Prisoner of War medals.
He spent the next 23 years as a State Farm® agent in Bloomington, Minn. He has outlived two wives and all four of his children. His granddaughter, Laura, is his caretaker.
Bill has been back to Chichijima several times, including once with President George H.W. Bush, who was also shot down near the island.
Gary Gilbertson, a 30-year State Farm agent who now works in Bill’s former office, helped organize the event at the baseball game to honor Bill.
“He raised the flag in hand-over-hand fashion,” says Gary. “He was wearing his leather bomber jacket, a World War II veteran cap and they had him on the big screen for everyone to see. And he saluted the flag at the end. The whole stadium stood and applauded. It was such an awe-inspiring moment.”
“It was the thrill of a lifetime,” says Bill. “I actually did raise the flag and then they escorted me to my seat and I sat and watched the ballgame.”
Julie Chapman is another State Farm agent who was on hand to witness it.
“It was powerful,” she says. “There were grown men with tears coming down their cheeks.”